In Addition To The Movie, Read The Book: Twelve Years A Slave

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[Book Review]

Book Author: Solomon Northup

Publisher: Dover

352 pages

New York

This is a Sankofa moment. Let nothing come between you and the words of Solomon Northup. Read his powerful, insightful, poetic, and impassioned documentation of horrors suffered and hope sustained during twelve years of enslavement. Don't run the risk of standing with the lynchers seeking entertainment in the torture inflicted under American enslavement.  Don't miss the irony that Northrup was taken into slavery in Washington, D.C., the capital of the nation.

The sheer story-telling power in Twelve Years a Slave, is astonishing.  Northup is a brilliant man with an exceptional memory.  He rarely forgets a name after only hearing it once.  His expansive awareness of life includes knowledge of geography and social organizations. He is a good judge of character, except for the two men who approached him to offer a job playing the violin. He describes them as well dressed. He did not suspect the urgent haste, their insisting that he leave at once. He did not question how they knew that he could play the violin. He was distracted by the lucrative salary offered and this distraction would cost him twelve years of freedom and separation from his loving wife and young children.

"Alas! I had not then learned the measure of ‘man's inhumanity to man,' nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain," the author says early in the book. There are many philosophical observations throughout the narrative which highlight Northup as a thoughtful man, not an image usually assigned to enslaved people.

So much that happened in 1841 can be compared with events in 2013. In the heart-wrenching cry of the child Emily when separated from her mother Eliza, we continue to hear the voice of Trayvon Martin calling out for help. Descriptions of the slave pens remind us of conditions described in The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. Among the many ironies, Freeman is the slaver's assistant. (We know the names of the slave ships: Young Saint Paul, Good Intent, Liberty, Amistad.)

When Solomon Northup was first beaten in effort to get him to renounce his status as a free man, he "would not say that he was a slave" even after a prolonged beating during which the handle of the whip broke.  The contemporary Yusef Salaam, with the support of his mother, shared the same courage, never admitting to a crime which he did not commit. (The Central Park Five)

For the purposes of enslavement,  Solomon Northup was renamed Platt. We are reminded of Chinua Achebe's words, "Oppression, renames its victims." While on the boat, shackled with other enslaved people, and brought on deck to sit on boxes, "Occasionally a passenger would walk out to where we were, look at us for a while, then silently return."

Do we want to counted among those who look, but do not see? Bread and pork only twice a day for people who worked hard all day?  Our food stamp program allows only two meals daily.

Northup's fight with a slaver recalls Frederick Douglass' fight with an overseer. "Fear gave me strength," Northup says, as the reader holds her breath.

There are so many stories of great drama in this story.  Read and re-read passages.  There is much to appreciate in the craft and creativity in the telling of this history.  Solomon Northup never endorsed enslavement as preferable to freedom.  He continued to love life, even when it seemed that life had forsaken him. We value freedom more highly after reading this work.

It had been forty-one years since I had first read the narrative.  Re-reading has been an astonishing journey.





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